Brunch as an Italian Meal: California Bakery in Milan

Brunch is, at essence, an American take on a European meal.  I can’t believe I didn’t see the similarities sooner.  As as student of Italian and as a brunch-lover, I’m disappointed.  How could I have gone so long without noticing this? It’s a lesisurely, go-at-you-own pace affair that can last for as long or as little as you’d like.  There’s the accompanying drinks — cocktails, juice, coffee — and as many courses as you want.  The likeness hit me over the head while sitting in California Bakery in Milan trying to stretch my cup of American coffee for as long as possible (I managed a respectable half hour).

True, there are a variety of differences between American brunch and a European meal. It’s not quite a salt and pepper fit (I hate peanut butter and jelly).  At the American brunch table, we’re heaping it all on to one plate.  We’re making the portions generous and throwing caution to the wind with delicacies like turkish eggs, lemon ricotta pancakes and eggs rothko.  Throwing moderation out the window doesn’t show up at the European table.  Even when brunch comes around, moderation is abandoned in a European manner, with high prices, food mixing and lots of bread.

Upon walking into California Bakery, an American restaurant famous for their American style brunch in Milan, I felt instantly at home.  The decor was Egg meets Magnolia Bakery meets Penelope.  There was a beachy vibe to the place, while still being that Italian mish mosh of cool/cute.  Near the entrance there was a display case offering American and English desserts in appropriately more-ish portions.  There cheesecake sat next to a lemon loaf cake that mingled with the bundts and doughtnuts.  There were jars of peanut butter and lyle’s golden syrup.  There were homemade bagels and bags of granola.

Despite being a solo diner, I had to wait for a table at around two pm (the thick of the brunch/lunch rush).  The few minutes I had to stand around didn’t bother me, I wanted to soak up this place as much as I could.  They even brought me a glass of water while I waited.  A few more groups came in after me and left when they were told they would need to wait. Perhaps it’s not a favorite of Italians, but I almost enjoy the wait that comes along with brunch.  It makes it more of an EXPERIENCE that deserves capitals and a dedicated morning.

When I finally sat down — at a little wooden table that looked like Le Pain Quotidien’s version of patio furniture — I had a great view from which to watch the entire restaurant.  There were two women next to me who were finishing up some salads as I arrived and a large party across from me who were just getting their large brunch plates and seemed to be settling in for the long haul.  A well-dressed couple sat down next to me, pulling out their ipad and iphones before they were even handed menus.  It was a smart looking crowd and it soon became clear why.

The prices were pretty steep, running around €15 for a cheaper meal.  I looked over the brunch menu trying to figure what was going on, confused about the names, what was being offered and what I wanted.  After a good long time analyzing the menu and what was actually being served, I decided to order a salad.  While I would have loved to order the Union Square plate, the idea of figuring out what a sweet omelette was, was a bit to daunting.  My salad was a masterpiece, however, truly worthy of the MORE nature of brunch.  There were carrots, chickpeas, roasted artichokes, roasted hazelnuts and an orange vinaigrette atop a lovely bed of lettuce.  It was huge, I wasn’t sure I could finish it.

I did and loved every bite.  They brought over a bread plate as well, which I eagerly sampled.  There was pumperknickel, bagel chips and some slices of whole wheat bread.  There were three different cream cheeses that I eagerly sampled, despite usually being a cream cheese hater.  The whole hour plus that I sat there felt like an event, even though it was a brunch enjoyed alone. I didn’t need to have someone to CHAT with, I just needed to observe and soak it up.  I just needed to remind myself that the things I love, that make me Emilia, can be accessed no matter where I am and no matter who I am with.

The American coffee came at the end of the meal.  I daringly requested a bit of milk to go with it to the utter shock of my waitress.  It was glorious, it was fantastic.  This was better coffee than what you’d get in America.  It was pleasingly thick and dense and tasted.  I could have sat there for ages.  In fact, I kinda did.  My brunch, including table service, coffee and every single add-on in my salad came out to €9.70.  Not too shabby and certainly cheaper than my brunches in New York (apart from Milk Bar).

By the time I was getting ready to leave, the brunch and lunch rush subsided.  The people next to me had left.  The table across from me had just ordered a second round of espresso.  People were talking, lounging.  Finally, I found a place in Italy that served coffee with no rush.  I breathed in the moment, relieved that it existed.

Brunch in Italy seems natural.  I was dubious when I first saw the restaurants in Pavia proudly offering Sunday brunch, but I get it now.  Inside of me there will always, always, be a brunch on Sunday no matter where I am and no matter who I am with, which is how I came to sit at the dining room table yesterday with a stack of apple pie pancakes, a stack of magazines and a cup of coffee for an hour and a half.

Do you enjoy dining alone?  Have you ever travelled by yourself?

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